This 2015 I read a number of books this year; these are not necessarily the best ones or the ones I enjoyed the most. However, they are certainly the strangest ones, the ones which I could say the most about. Therefore this might run a little long.
- Constant Young, The Elk-Sword; Maria Patterson, Swans of the Bridge
I suppose I am cheating by beginning with two books, considered together. They are fascinating and interesting by themselves: both take place in an alternative universe where the Viking explorers in Newfoundland and the Canadian arctic not only survived, but persisted into the interior, intermarrying with Canadian aboriginal peoples and becoming syncretic nations in North America. Furthermore, of course, magic exists in this world and makes a permanent impression on it, though not in the flashy and excessive way most fantasy authors depict it. As fantasy novels go, both are high calibre. Running to stereotype, Patterson’s Swans of the Bridge is mostly intrigue, both political and romantic, while Young’s The Elk-Sword’s politics is much more martial and heroic. But it would be reductive to say that The Elk-Sword is only a standard sword-and-sorcery narrative or that Swans of the Bridge is a period romance; each has plenty of elements of the other’s genre, too.
The reason these books appear on my list, though, is their continuity—or, I should say, their continuity errors. Both Young’s novel and Patterson’s occur in a shared world and cover the same events, though they follow different characters and have mostly different plots. However, their stories involve minor but significant differences in that world’s events: in Elk-Sword, the B-plot villain Tsaheimr dies in the First Battle of Thokagil midway through the plot, while in Swans protagonist and exiled jarl’s daughter Dagan Eilifsdottr kills Tsaheimr on Tungleskin Island because he oversaw her secret tryst with—well, spoilers. It is important to Elk-Sword’s politics that he dies in that particular Battle; it is important to Dagan’s character arc that she kills him on Tungleskin. Furthermore, both novels are careful to preclude that these are merely different perspectives on the same events, that he only appeared to die in one of those cases. Moreover, with the exception of this contradiction, the novels inform one another significantly; they stand well alone, but are improved together, to such an extent that it is difficult to separate them. (Swans informs and deepens Amisk’s treachery in Elk-Sword; Elk-Sword heightens the tension of Swans by clarifying the political stakes of Dagan’s romantic choices, even as they remain invisible to her.)
In interviews, Patterson and Young pretend that there is no contradiction, even when it is explicitly laid out for them. They insist that both books are canonical. Both books use a typical limited omniscient narrator, mostly invisible to the reader. Despite their feigned ignorance, it is clear they’ve done all they could do to prevent any reconciling the contradiction. Only the most obviously contrived fan theories could make sense of it.
What Patterson and Young do, of course, is call attention to the assumption we, as readers and as authors, make when approaching novels: that they must represent, in some way, a series of events which conform to realistic expectations of time, space, identity, and so on. They call attention to the fact that novels are fictions, patterns of words on the page, not bound to the categories our real lives are subject to. They therefore also make nonsense of the idea of canon, in which the depictions of certain texts are taken as authoritative and the depictions of other texts are not. If both texts are “canon,” but they are in irreconcilable contradiction (or, at any rate, both novels would lose their power and import if the contradiction were reconciled), can the concept of canon mean what we think it means? Is there any other way to understand what is meant by canon?
- Marisa Tweedy, The Messiah Fell
Very Roman Catholic Marisa Tweedy’s very Roman Catholic previous novel, Nothing that is True, was well-written, with strong and realistic characters; however, throughout the novel, she gave the impression that her characters’ main flaws were their idiosyncratic deviations from Roman Catholicism. This might have been understandable, if only these flaws did not resolve so reliably into flavours of relativism. Surely there are more ways of being non-Catholic than being a relativist of some kind. I have not read The Fishermen’s Men, but I have heard similar things about it.
I bring this up because The Messiah Fell deftly avoids these problems, and then some. The protagonist and first viewpoint character, Jesse Wurst, a twenty-something accountant raised Catholic in a Midwest US Protestant town, begins the novel a theistic Satanist, and while his trajectory brings him out of Satanism and suggests that the truth lies with Rome, at the very least the novel acknowledges, unflinchingly, what prevents him from returning there. And while Nothing never did its few Buddhist characters’ Buddhism any justice, Messiah is far fairer to Satanism than I expected it to be. Perhaps this is because Tweedy sees in Satanism the same impulses in her own Catholicism: a resistance against symbols of power, a heroic emulation of those symbols’ opposites and inversions, a desire to empower the disempowered, a narrative of moral development and personal responsibility. Tweedy recognizes that both Christianity and Satanism derive their energy from a creative and rebellious reinterpretation of a previous narrative’s material, whether that narrative is Roman imperial or Christian triumphalist. But while Tweedy’s socially conscious Catholicism sees power in the rich, in the security-obsessed middle class, and in the politically enshrined, Jesse in his theistic Satanism sees power in religious authorities, in aggressive conventionality, and in a disempowering culture of conflict-aversion. While Tweedy’s revolutionary symbols against economic and political power are the poor and lineage-defying Holy Family, the crown of thorns, and the rebel’s crucifixion, Jesse’s opposing symbols must be those set against Tweedy’s own preferred symbols: the enlightening serpent, the exploratory Eve, and the passionate Satan. Tweedy makes much of these similarities, and these are perhaps why she handles Jesse’s Satanism much better than Buddhism, with which she seemed unable to empathize in Nothing.
It is important to her to show how the Messiah rises to heaven but first falls into mortality. She wants to rescue Catholicism from its trappings of power. Of course, there’s an irony in this which Tweedy begins to explore: “the Messiah fell” comes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and for Blake the Messiah was Satan. The working title, apparently, was Adopted by Both Parties, and that would perhaps have been a better title: still true to the nature of the novel and its influences, but somewhat less preachy. Adopted by Both Parties is less catchy, I suppose, than The Messiah Fell.1
The other characters are at least as robust and delightful as the sweet Satanic Jesse: Karla Croft is a cheerful communist who tellingly misunderstands the history of Marxism; Brenda Wurst, Jesse’s mother, a type of middle-class convention, collects unintentionally subversive kitsch; the despicable Frank Panders runs drugs and a homeless shelter, and the horror of the first neither overwhelms nor is overwhelmed by the beatitude of the second. Its language and characters are all careful and well-chosen; I focus most of Jesse’s Satanism since it is such a clear improvement over Tweedy’s previous work.
- Erich Schwartz, The Doubling Path
I think by now the novelty of writing a novel out of chronological order has begun to wear off for me. Perhaps it hasn’t for everyone, but the conceit is likely one many people would find pretentious. Of course a novel written out of chronological order can call attention to the fact we assume a novel would be written in a straight line and that there might be reasons to put it in a different order altogether. For instance, suspense is not the only pleasure to be had in reading; changing the order makes us pay attention to those other pleasures.
Erich Schwartz’s The Doubling Path is exactly as pretentious as it sounds, which is to say that it is quite pretentious. It tries to be literary fiction, which I have always found to be a disastrous ambition: the best literary fiction tries to be nothing but the best version of whatever it is, and that is how it becomes literary fiction. Put simply, The Doubling Path concerns the life of Randolph Smith, a man whose only principles are aesthetic rather than ethical or social ones, as he watches his own life become an exquisite and unlivable catastrophe; the second half of his life is a perverse mirror on the first half. The novel becomes interesting, however, because it comes with three reading orders: the author’s preferred order is indicated by the order in which the pages are bound, but at the bottom of each page in the style of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books are instructions sending you to the next page in either the Chronological Order or the Editor’s Preferred Order.
I have not tried reading The Doubling Path in all three orders (I started with the author’s preferred order), but I have skimmed the editor’s preference. It certainly appears to be a different novel read that way: different causal relationships are suggested by the different juxtapositions of events. While the author’s version seems to suggest that Fate is a moral aesthete who created deliberate resonances in Smith’s life, the editor’s recommends a more mundane reading: the events in the second half of Smith’s life are caused by the trivia of his first life, and the similarities are mostly deserved coincidences. I suspect that a chronological order would call less attention to chains of cause and effect and heighten more than anything Smith’s hamartia and fall, first by letting him go unpunished for so long and second by lingering over and compounding his resulting misfortunes.
Overall, I am not sure it is a book I recommend to anyone who was not intensely interested in the orders in which narratives are presented. I suspect The Doubling Path relies too much on the novelty of its conceit, but I would be happy to see the Choose-Your-Preferred-Order used more often so fewer people would be tempted to rely on its novelty and more would be tempted to see what the form can do.
- Max Fields, The Thorns in the Road
If The Doubling Path came close to maxing out this year’s patience with experimental forms, then The Thorns in the Road came close to maxing out its patience with experimental genres. For its first quarter the book is a standard realist novel, but over time it begins to pick up traces of other generic conventions, at first indiscernibly and then glaringly; by the last third of the book, each chapter is of a different genre. The characters (Maria Fields, whose incredulity toward everything is mesmerizing, and John Fisher, who is unremarkable) and plot (trying to find an heirloom stolen by a thief who died before he could confess where he hid it) remain the same throughout, and place names are all still perfectly discernable. But in one chapter they ride horses and wear cowboy hats and seriously contemplate vigilante justice; in the next chapter, Maria puts on the red dress of a hard-boiled detective’s femme fatale; in the next, the River City Palace Hotel is a literal palace and the gang members have black dragons emblazoned on their shields. There is no in-narrative device to explain these changes. They just are.
It doesn’t work. That is the simple truth of the matter. I don’t think this is due to any particular fault on Max Fields’s part: his other novels show him to be a serviceable writer of characters and plots. But character motivations can only survive so many generic transformations and by the end both the characters and the stakes become lost. I found it very hard to keep caring about the plot when it took so much work to translate it out of each chapter’s genre’s terms.
There is one interesting thing that happens in the middle of the novel, however. About four or five passages could have happened in multiple genres without distortion. The details mentioned, the language used, the kinds of options the characters consider, are all plausible in, for example, either a western or a science fiction novel, or either a Harlequin-style romance or a Gothic horror story. The illusion is sustained for a while, until some sequence of tropes collapses the generic superposition one way or another. I do not know what to make of this effect, but I thought it was worth mentioning. If you have read the novel, or do read it, let me know what you think.
- Samantha Farley, In the Woods of Fort Hill
According to Northrop Frye, one of our most influential literary critics, Canadian literature has a pervasive garrison mentality: characters are always looking out of their communities, building walls in fear of the outside world, which is both the vast emptiness of the Canadian landscape and oppression by other nations (the United States and England in particular). In doing so, however, the characters find themselves trapped in often strict, regimental communities from which they cannot escape. There is thus a contrast between the disorienting Othered external world and the homogenous internal society. Northrop Frye, however, is somewhat odd, and I suspect his views on Canadian literature are coloured by his general views on literature depicting an opposition between the human world and the inhuman world. Furthermore, to me Frye’s views seem quite similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s, in which human society is a small outpost of reason in an unknowable cosmos indifferent to human endeavours. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods and associated mythos are symbols for the cosmos as he understands it.2 I do not know how much Lovecraft characterizes American literature, but I think it would be fruitful to put Lovecraft in conversation with Canadian literature.
It was therefore probably inevitable that a Canadian would notice this similarity and write a novel putting Lovecraftian monsters in the Canadian north.
As the title—In the Woods of Fort Hill—suggests, there is something in the woods and swamps surrounding Fort Hill, a small former fur-trading post in the very southern part of the Northwest Territories. As is typical in these sorts of stories, the nature of that something remains mysterious, vague, often almost contradictory throughout the novel, to heighten the sense that the thing outside cannot be explained, articulated, or fully understood. What was most interesting to me, though, was the number of different forest/city tropes it drew on. The novel began with something almost like a Shakespearean comedy, in which the lovers flee to the forest where all social convention is upended in order to work through their relationship away from the restrictive and arbitrarily legalistic city state which blocks their love. But the novel also calls on the fairy-haunted woods, the ancient fear of a magical parallel society hostile or indifferent to humanity. Given the overt and advertised homage to Lovecraft, I do not think it is too much of a spoiler to say the thing in the woods is an ancient extraterrestrial, not a visitor from Otherworld, though the difference between the two might be negligible.
The best touch, I think, is the comparison drawn between particular conservative forms of Christianity and Lovecraft’s cults of the Old Gods. In both, there is an indescribable God with inhuman morality who rules through fear, bringing victims into torturous or entrancing alternate worlds (Hell or Heaven, Yuggoth), focusing both on a narrative of personal transformation in which the worshipper becomes increasingly like the object of worship and on the assimilation of the entire society (usually a small, isolated town) into a sacrificial community with literal or metaphorical cannibalistic acts, during which the community becomes more and more hostile to outsiders. Indeed, part of the whole drama of the novel is the slow realization that what motivates the restrictive legalism of Fort Hill’s garrison society is the second face of what lies in the woods north of town.
As a horror story, this novel is enjoyable and fairly good, though Farley does not have the same ear for voice that someone like Stephen King has; it does not read nearly so smoothly as a King novel. As a meditation on Canadian literature or Canadian society, it is limited to the remarks I made above: interesting, of course, but it overlooks the many other quirks of Canadiana. I suppose that is a minor enough fault; it was not likely meant to be a complete exploration of the country’s culture, after all.
- Chester Keith, The Mummers’ Guild
If Rene Girard or one of his disciples wrote a mystery novel, it would look very much like The Mummers’ Guild. Indeed, I suspect that Mummers’ is meant to be a Girardian detective novel. Much like television shows, which have both arcs and episodic Monsters of the Week, it juggles between what seem to be short stories and parts of an overarching murder mystery which the protagonist—affable private investigator Jude Stokes—investigates. Many of the episodic mysteries are of a transparently Girardian character: Person A learns to desire an object from Person B, and so kills Person B; Person A and Person B, being friends, both desire the same object, and they therefore conspire to destroy the object to prevent it from ruining their relationship. Others are less transparent, but nonetheless always have elements of jealousy and rivalry, and in Keith’s world jealousy not only contains desire and enmity but also admiration.
The overarching plot, however, is where the Girardian philosophy intersects with the mystery story form in the most interesting way. Most mysteries begin with a community; someone in that community commits a crime that ruptures the community’s peace and identity (indeed, a crime is anything that creates such a rupture); the detective, on behalf of the community, tries to identity the person responsible; the person is identified and punished, and the community is healed. What is strange is that, in mystery stories, the identification and punishment of the criminal is usually sufficient to restore the community. Why should this be?
According to Rene Girard, myths originate like this: as blood feuds and rivalries reach a pitch severe enough to tear a community or society apart, the members of the community identify a scapegoat which they can all blame for their enmity. They then kill the scapegoat, purging the community of violence and vendetta. Moreover, since all members of the community direct their anger towards the scapegoat, the community is unified in this action. However, the unification of the community has, at its heart, a murder. The community must remember the event differently than it happened: they create a myth in which the scapegoating is remembered as a sacrifice and the victim is remembered as a hero that brought the community together. Or, told differently: the community has a rupture; the community looks for a person who they can hold responsible; they identify and punish someone they call a criminal, and the community is restored. It is the detective story, except the person who is identified as the criminal is not responsible for the rupture. This explains why punishing the criminal is enough to restore the community: that punishment unifies all of the community’s members.
In The Mummers’ Guild, Eva l’Arbor, the victim whose murder Stokes investigates, is such a scapegoat, and the events he uncovers are a mirror for his own investigation. There are two murder mysteries: the one which produces the murder, and the one which solves it.
- Lewis George, The Strange Reviewer
The novel’s protagonist, Lydia Martin, is the eponymous strange reviewer, in that she writes reviews of novels that do not exist. She does not make her living exclusively in this way, but it is the form that most entrances her: it allows her to write and have read ideas for the most preposterous, pretentious, or unpalatable novels without bothering to write them. After all, almost no one would read them. But her ideas are at least interesting enough to think about, in the abstract; even when they sound like they would make very bad novels, that at least tells us something about what goes into the making of a good novel. In a way, Martin’s reviews of non-existent novels can describe a good novel in the way of via negativa. Not that all of the non-existent novels sound bad; some sound like things I would very much want to read.
This conceit is an explicit homage to Jorge Luis Borges, who is credited with inventing the genre of the review of the non-existent book. My particular favourite of this type is “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim,” but “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is perhaps the best known. The Strange Reviewer’s equally strange narrator comes back to both of these works throughout the novel, including brief essays on them as commentaries on Martin’s own life.
I am perhaps misrepresenting the novel: while Martin’s preferred form of writing does take up a central place in the novel, much of it has to do with Martin’s own painful lack of self-awareness, her various insecurities in her writing and her relationships, and her various presumptions to greatness. It seems a commentary on the creative professional, or a certain type of creative professional: simultaneously entitled and possessed of a Protestant work ethic to rival John Calvin, variously grandiose in ambition and self-depreciating, obsessed with a security she cannot have and yet afraid of committing to anything that might give it to her, convinced that she and her friends must make their own way in the world and frustrated at the lack of guidance appropriate to her generation’s peculiar situation. Lewis expertly twines these themes with his protagonist’s chosen genre, in its humble pretension, its unconventional allusions to a prior literary generation, its great visions and fleeting executions. Lydia Martin is both deeply sympathetic and terribly annoying; if she weren’t such a kind character, I suspect she would be completely unlikable.
I don’t know whether to recommend The Strange Reviewer. If you are me or have tastes similar to mine—an obsession with the relationships between life and writing, an affection for good-natured but ruinously flawed characters, a patience for people who have only lived comfortable lives—then I would recommend the book. If you are not me and do not share my tastes, I would not recommend the book. Oh, and a last note: in order to enjoy the book, you must take pleasure in the frustrated desire of reading about books that sound very readable and do not exist.
- Both titles come from this passage in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah.
And the original Archangel, or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan, and his children are call’d Sin & Death .
For in the Book of Job, Milton’s Messiah is call’d Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out; but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.* * *
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
- I have written about this before.